It is quite ironic to think that an old or outclassed military aircraft could actually save lives or even have some impact on history, but the sad truth is that often times war changes the fabric of the world very fast and events within it do have, at times, far reaching affects. So is the case with aircraft who have the capacity to save lives when in the hands of competent pilots who destroy the aggressor who is intent upon attacking the innocent. Such was the case in the skies over China as Japan waged war with their advanced air force as all who stood before them were the Flying Tigers.
Unable to react
The year is 1941 and for some unknown reason just hours after Pearl Harbor is attacked the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy are moving against several US and Allied targets across the Pacific. At the US airbase at Manila, General MacArthur receives word of the Pearl Harbor tragedy via radio that the Japanese have declared war on the United States and are most likely approaching the Philippine coast. For some inexplicable reason according to witness testimony General Douglas MacArthur goes to his room without a word. Hours later the Japanese arrive and their bombers begin devastating not only the ground base, but also destroy 40 Curtiss P-40 Warhawks along with a line of B-17’s parked on the runway at Clark Field According to officers working alongside MacArthur they believe he was shocked at the news of Pearl Harbor being severely hit and became confused. His delay in giving orders proved devastating to the defenders.
Thousands of British soldiers occupy Manila along with the American base. Under heavy sustained attack and being out flanked soon the British will capitulate to the Japanese as the Americans make a well executed withdrawal to Corregidor which sits on a system of tunnels to defend from. Nearby Bataan is also a defensive stronghold. The only thing MacArthur has to throw up against the Japanese Imperial Army in the air is the Boeing P-26A the first operational monoplane fighter of the US Army Air Corps. Well equipped with armament, the aircraft is maneuverable and has a windscreen but no cockpit for the pilot. It has a maximum operating ceiling of 27,000 ft. and a top speed of around 214 mph. but without a pressurized cockpit that pilot is limited to the altitude he can climb without getting anoxia. With only a handful of these tough little aircraft to defend the skies over Corregidor with a small number of remaining P-40’s and B-17 Bombers American and pilots rise from the airfields to meet their better equipped foes-the Japanese in their Zero fighter planes.
Too little too late
Surprisingly, the P-26A’s do well against the Japanese able to out turn them at low altitude and having enough firepower to shoot them down. For the first time the Japanese run into effective opposition, but alas only a small number of Peashooters put up a good but short fight. There are not enough planes, parts, or mechanical facilities under the incessant bombing and salvos from Japanese destroyers and cruisers to allow for any repair. Soon attrition eats up the small force of P-26A’s and their brave pilots who fought with incredible courage for a decidedly lost cause. The contest will be quickly in the hands of the Japanese as MacArthur’s forces are ill-prepared and are now suffering from widespread Malaria which is taking more casualties than the bullets and shrapnel of their enemies. Surrender becomes a foregone conclusion.
General MacArthur is ordered by President Roosevelt to withdraw to Australia to assume command there. Douglas appoints his friend and second in command General John A. Wainwright to assume top leadership of the Philippines. March 3, 1942 MacArthur who had originally chosen to stay with his army decides instead of being evacuated by submarine to take a small force of PT-Boats in the early morning hours and on rough seas to begin his trip to Australia where he will assume command of the South Pacific forces. By May the last resistance of US Marines, Navy personnel, and Filipino soldiers surrender, half starved, shell shocked by constant bombardments, and stricken with Malaria. Soon the infamous Bataan Death March would become a bloody page in the annals of history and General Mac Arthur would not return until 1945.
Sinking of the Bismarck
The Fairey Swordfish was a very unlikely aircraft in World War II to have achieved any sort of crucial moment that might have changed the course of history, but, in fact, it did. On May 24, 1941 in contrast to the US forces surrender of Bataan, Corregidor, and the Philippines, the British were about to make one of the biggest victories at sea become a morale boosting revenge for the loss of one of their prized ships to the infamous German Battleship, the Bismarck. Just days earlier in a sea battle between the HMS Hood, HMS Prince of Wales, who engaged the German’s Bismarck in the Denmark Straights.
Loss of the Pride of their fleet
In an engagement that lasted just 20 minutes the largest battle cruiser in the British Royal navy at 41,000 tons, the HMS Hood, was to be literally blown in half and rendered into a ball of fire with a single shell from the Bismarck that fell into her “Magazine” as seamen called it or the ammunitions storage compartment. HMS Prince of Wales had traded salvos with the Bismarck but had taken 7 hits and was severely damaged barely able to remain underway. The Bismarck had sustained damage from exchanging salvos with the HMS Price of Wales, but was well within operation parameters to finish off the British cruiser. Yet, the Captain resisted temptation to finish off the Prince of Wales and decided to depart the area and not expose his 52,000 ton battle ship to anymore risk for the time being. He ordered the massive warship to change course. More than 1,400 crewmen perish!
The Fairey Swordship first flew in 1934 and was well deemed obsolete, but was pushed into service during the Battle of Great Britain as Herman Goering tried to use the Luftwaffe to bomb Great Britain into submission, exhaust her Air Force reserves through air to air duels between his ME-109’s against the Hawker Hurricanes along with the Spitfire while escorting the Junkers 88’s and 87’s along with the Heinkel 111’s over London and other targets of opportunity. Through burning cities, the attrition of the RAF squadrons and the continued losses of the Luftwaffe, the Germans relented. Air Marshall Goering had failed.
A touch of fate
An ancient torpedo plane by modern standards, the Swordfish was 39 feet long, could only carry 2 torpedoes, and had a top speed of 139 miles per hour. It was hardly a formidable opponent for a defensive air cover or ship manned with adequate antiaircraft capability to fight off. Yet, as pilot RAF Officer Moffat sighted the Bismarck using his ASV II radar and began a run toward the gigantic German Battle Ship an uncanny incident took place. The Bismarck’s antiaircraft fire controls were set for the speeds of more modern offensive aircraft of the British who’s Spitfires, Hurricanes, and Gladiator Bombers flew much faster.
A crucial decision
The Fairey Swordship was an aging Bi-plane and with the high seas, strong winds accompanied by the deep troughs of huge waves the aircrew struggled against. The aircraft had to deliver the torpedo just above the churning seas so when at 2,000 yards British RAF Officer Moffat made his torpedo run his navigator suddenly told him to hold his fire! They were headed straight toward the most feared enemy battleship by the British Navy as it loomed in front of them, but Moffat had to wait for a trough between giant waves before he could launch the torpedo! Finally the navigator sitting in the rear seat gave him the go ahead, “Now you can fire!”
Another twist of fate
As fate would have it, the torpedo Moffat would fire had been the replacement for another type normally used aboard Swordfishes, but these torpedoes were found to have a defect in their detonating fuses so it had been replaced with a newer model designed with a fuse that exploded on contact. So as he pressed the fire button with his right thumb flying literally into the Bismarck, the torpedo ran straight and true. If a wave had hit it before he could launch it within a trough the ordnance would have been thrown off target and could have gone anywhere! So as the fish steamed through the water right on course, Moffat pulled back on his controls and cleared the top of the Bismarck gaining enough altitude to avoid crashing into the hulking mass of the huge German Battle Ship! He passed over the top as the torpedo struck!
A slingshot from David
It was only a single torpedo hardly enough to sink or seriously damage the Bismarck, but unbeknownst to the aircrew of the Swordfish their fish had struck the rear steering rudder of the battle ship rendering it unable to escape the pursuing British Royal Navy. Although the damage might have seemed relatively minor, without the ability to repair it, the fact that the Bismarck could only sail in a wide circle at 11 knots, made her an easy target for the pursuing British Navy. The aging Swordfish had just struck a death blow to the mighty Bismarck, the pride of the German fleet, and the nemesis who had sunk the much revered HMS Hood. So infuriated were the British over the loss of the HMS Hood and the near sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales that Winston Churchill had angrily ordered his forces to hunt down the Bismarck, spare no effort, and use all force necessary to sink her!
The turning point!
The resulting loss of the Bismarck sent shockwaves through the Nazi command and the Admiralty who had enjoyed an illustrious U-Boat campaign against British and US shipping while terrorizing the Allies with their big juggernaut, yet a David and Goliath scenario had unfolded! An obsolete Torpedo plane conceived in 1934, slow, with an old Bi-plane design had struck a fatal blow and had also raised the morale of the British people along with their military by defeating the most feared battle ship on the open seas of the Atlantic. Flown by her heroic crew, the Swordfish prevailed! The spirits of the beleaguered British people driven below street level into the subway system during nightly bombing raids by the Nazis now had something to cheer about and with a leader like Winston Churchill they succeeded against all odds!